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Party of 5

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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 30, 2004
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Party of 5

Candidates galore want to be the next Hillsborough County clerk.

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

The pending retirement of Hillsborough County's clerk of the circuit court has enticed a surprisingly large contingent into the election race to replace the 63-year-old Richard L. Ake.

There are enough candidates for Ake's $137,351-a-year job that both major parties need a primary on Aug. 31 to choose their nominee. Two women, Pat Frank and Helene Marks, square off on the Democratic side. Three men, Chris Hart, Steve Hall and Bob Zegota, comprise the Republican lineup. With no runoff, the top vote-getters meet each other in the November general election.

The court clerk is the last of Hillsborough's constitutional offices to turn over since the 1980s. Reformers have cleaned out the cobwebs in such elected offices as elections supervisor, property appraiser and tax collector. Ake's office appears in need of similar treatment, candidates say.

Democrat Ake wasn't opposed at election time until 2000. In what turned out to be his final campaign, Ake trounced Republican Bart Siegel, whose complaints about complacency and inefficiency at the clerk's office foreshadowed this year's campaign rhetoric.

To Ake's credit, he has undertaken a few initiatives to modernize county recordkeeping since his contested 2000 re-election. But, with the obvious exception of designated Ake successor Marks, most of the 2004 candidates see much left to be done to make the clerk's office, as Zegota puts it, more "user friendly."

The office revolves around seemingly mundane clerical tasks such as bookkeeping and recording deeds. But the Hillsborough clerk manages an annual budget in excess of $26 million and employs more than 800.

Legal and real estate professionals depend on the office for their livelihoods while the big payroll offers inviting patronage possibilities. That tends to explain how this year's field combined to raise an impressive $221,861 in cash through June 30, with more than two months left before primary balloting.

Here's a GCBR reading of what the campaign filings say about the five candidates for Hillsborough clerk.

Pat Frank

The no-nonsense veteran politician has given up the last two years of her term on the county commission to add one last notch to the resume. Frank has previously served on the local school board and in Florida Legislature, and made unsuccessful tries for Congress and the U.S. Senate during a political career spanning almost 40 years.

She appears to be most interested in one particular function of the clerk, that of county auditor. Though an old-line Democrat in increasingly Republican Hillsborough, Frank won two terms to a countywide commission seat running as a fiscal conservative. She is sticking with that theme in the clerks' race, pledging to be "a person of integrity" who will be "the taxpayer's watchdog."

But this watchdog has made a few enemies, too, especially at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Her refusal to consider a commuter rail system in anything but the very distant future has put Frank at odds with some Tampa business leaders. They might take it out on Frank by supporting another clerk's candidate.

Still, power brokers such as automobile dealer James L. Ferman Jr. and Lykes family investor Tom L. Rankin are on Frank's contribution list.

Frank doesn't forget friends and they don't forget her. The family of Emeline C. Acton has given $600 to Frank's campaign. Frank was an unwavering Acton backer on the commission last year as the former county attorney was besieged by bad publicity and probes over her management of the office.

The county commissioner has also collected campaign donations from New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner, lawyers Barry Cohen and Steven Yerrid, and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center President Judith A. Lisi.

Helene Marks

Marks is arguably the most articulate and knowledgeable of all the candidates about the myriad tasks performed by the clerk's office. Her problem is how she acquired that know-how.

"Ready Today. Already There!" is her campaign slogan.

Ake's legal counsel since 1996, Marks has been enthusiastically endorsed by her boss and her campaign is financed by a slew of co-workers. Yet, if other candidates harp on the need for change in clerk's operations, voters are going to wonder if Marks will be free to toss out the bureaucratic deadwood.

Marks has wisely tailored her message to attract female voters, mentioning her past lives as teacher and stay-at-home mom in campaign literature. Retiring Sheriff Cal Henderson and Hillsborough Commissioner Thomas Scott have joined Ake allies Frederick B. Karl and Phyllis Busansky to support Marks and keep the office in Democratic hands.

In fundraising, Marks has taken in $103,369, more than double Frank's $45,625. But Frank got into the race later and is likely to close that gap by the next fundraising report, due July 30.

Dozens of bail bondsmen, title searchers and other courthouse denizens have written checks for Marks. Fellow attorneys haven't neglected her, either. Notables include John C. Bales, Herbert M. Berkowitz, Lynn Cole, John M. Fitzgibbons, Catherine W. Real, Albert M. Salem Jr., William Reece Smith Jr. and Delano S. Stewart.

There is a Republican or two sprinkled in among these mostly Democratic supporters. Former county commissioner Dottie Berger MacKinnon and ex-sheriff Malcolm Beard are in the Marks camp.

Steve Hall

Hall is working a different end of the courthouse: namely, the court administrator's office. After working in accounting, budget, contracts and mediation, he says he is as qualified as Marks.

But Hall has to be considered a long shot. Hall has raised less than $15,000, even though he has been banging his tin cup since last summer. Most of his contributors have given far below the maximum $500, an indication that some have their doubts about his viability.

Not so Hall, who has loaned his campaign $10,000.

Recognizable names on Hall's donor list include Republicans Benjamin A. Kelly, aide to County Commissioner Jim Norman; former state legislator Deborah Tamargo; local radio personality Tedd Webb, who donated $150 worth of photography; and former Tampa City Council candidate Gene Wells.

Chris Hart

If Chris Hart III wants voters to let him keep the county's books, he's going to have to be a little clearer than the personal financial disclosure form he filed with the elections supervisor.

Candidates for major state and county elected offices in Florida must file detailed forms outlining their personal finances, including what they earned last year and their net worth. Form 6 is designed to help voters and the press make sure their elected officials don't feather their own nest at the expense of taxpayers or the public trust.

Hart's income sheet includes a $7,560 line labeled "payable" under the heading of professional services. The item appears with $13,745 of income derived from a company called Coastal Water Resources LLC that Hart formed last year with Tampa attorneys William F. Humphries III and Stanford R. Solomon.

Hart says the $7,560 was the accounts payable to Coastal Water Resources for consulting work. His eagerness to show productivity at Coastal Water Resources team is understandable. On the morning the form was filed, Republican rival Bob Zegota unleashed an attack in The Tampa Tribune that accused Hart of running a "shell corporation" that did little business.

A snarling exchange between Hart and Zegota backer Ralph Hughes ensued later that day at a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa forum. Hughes, who owns a concrete company, asked the clerk candidates if victory would mean they'd be taking a pay cut.

Hart, who served on the county commission from 1994 until 2002, has struggled somewhat on the fundraising front. He had just $29,300 in cash at the end of June. But he did get $4,500 from Richard D. Mandt and the Jaeb family, long-time Republican benefactors.

One of the most partisan county commissioners in recent years, Hart is playing up his Republican credentials in the clerk's competition, too. His Web site,, is adorned with photographs of Hart standing with Gov. Jeb Bush, state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, and U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs.

The candidate's son, former state representative and now Tallahassee lobbyist Chris Hart IV, gave $500 to the campaign. So did another capital lobbyist, Don Yaeger, whose firm shares many of the same clients with the younger Hart's government relations shop.

Bob Zegota

Bob Zegota, a commercial broker for Grubb & Ellis Co., is indeed the candidate of Hughes and the rest of the real estate industry.

Hughes gave $2,500. But Clearwater developer Carl Minieri and investor Michael Gentile have bundled up $3,000 for Zegota's campaign. The political action committee of the Florida Gulfcoast Commercial Association of Realtors, where Zegota is president, gave $500.

Zegota's campaign platform sounds like he has had to use the clerk's office.

Besides promising user-friendliness, he says he would simplify public access to computerized records in the office, encourage staffers to talk "person to person" with callers to the office, and accelerate recording of deeds and other official records.

Some donors are hedging their bets, or maybe trying to stay on the good side of two candidates.

Valrico title insurer Tucker Alday has given $500 to both Zegota and Frank. Developer and GOP activist Richard A. Beard contributed $500 each to Zegota and Hart. Recreational vehicle dealer Donald W. Wallace and his wife, Erika, gave $1,000 to both Zegota and Marks.


Occupation: County commissioner

Residence: Tampa

Age: 74

Party: Democrat

Registered to vote in Hillsborough County: 1962

Net worth: $1.3 million

Annual wages: $80,782

Annual passive income: $61,718

Total annual income: $142,500


Occupation: County court administrator

Residence: Valrico

Age: 57

Party: Republican

Registered to vote in Hillsborough County: 1968

Net worth: $325,545

Annual wages: $54,057

Annual passive income: $6,550

Total annual income: $60,607


Occupation: Consultant

Residence: Tampa

Age: 59

Party: Republican

Registered to vote in Hillsborough County: 1966

Net worth: $1.2 million

Annual wages: $51,317

Annual passive income: $23,661

Total annual income: $74,978


Occupation: Circuit court clerk's legal counsel

Residence: Tampa

Age: 51

Party: Democrat

Registered to vote in Hillsborough County: 1986

Net worth: $1.4 million

Annual wages: $102,698

Annual passive income: $50,153

Total annual income: $152,851


Occupation: Commercial real estate broker

Residence: Tampa

Age: 56

Party: Republican

Registered to vote in Hillsborough County: 1980

Net worth: $732,505

Annual wages: $144,405

Annual passive income: $14,489

Total annual income: $158,894


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